Horror, be it in film or literature, often works best in short forms, which is perhaps the most suitable setting for what is meant to be an unnatural medium. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, believed that if you couldn’t read a terror tale in one sitting, it probably wasn’t much worth reading. If we play the word association game and throw out the phrase, “Horror novel,” I think many people immediately call to mind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But how does that novel function? It’s certainly not written “straight-through”—the form is that of the collage, of assembled scraps. A letter here, a cable here, a snatch of dictation there. Each is a story, after a fashion, as was the original first chapter—which has since become known as “Dracula’s Guest”—that is now read as its own autonomous piece. The meaning of Dracula comes together through the assemblage, and the relation, of the parts. But each part could nonetheless contain its own private, haunting streak. That each part does, is why Dracula remains undead as a conceit/project of its own, living the life eternal.
There are no horror “epics” in the movies. Broaden horror, and horror loses part of its sting; it becomes less of a seeming lethal injection in a life, and more an unfortunate status quo. The latter may have greater terror, but it’s also a terror that blends in, ceases to stand out.
Consider the early Universal horror films. These are the works of the golden age, with the archetypes—the bloodsucker, the reanimated corpse, the man-turned-into a wolf—that endure to this day. You’re usually talking seventy minutes of fare. Get in, then depart. A lightning-strike attack to the psyche. Or, as Stoker noted: the dead travel fast.
Efficacious horror is that way in “real” life, too. A friend of mine was recently speaking to me on the phone as he drove, then remarked that he’d have to call me back because there was a body in the street. Said body, which had been covered by the emergency technicians on hand, belonged to a motorcyclist, who had smacked into the back of a truck, as my friend went on to learn with the help of Google. A sheet blew away, and thus my friend’s eyeful of death. He brings it up from time to time. I made a joke shortly after the sighting saying, “Well, that’ll teach you that life is real, and buckle up, son,” but I understand that he remains haunted by the surprise of the image. The intrusion upon natural order and the status quo—and upon expectation of what one will experience in one’s day.
Halloween art is at its apex when it taps into this spirit-vibe of the accidental and the incidental. I’m not advocating, of course, for the sampling of real life tragedy, but instead the fictional—or the quasi-fictional, as we shall see—that adumbrates real life emotions and truths. That’s the eldritch elision. Fear has its chief value as an instrument that makes us aware of stakes we might not have considered as we live our lives. Fear grounds us, because it offers perspective and perspicacity, with one of its staunchest lessons being that the “ordinary” can represent death itself. Or life-in-death. Fear is a life coach. It rallies us. Hopefully its source will not be the actual death of us, but as hockey coaches like to say, fear is a top-level motivator. You might even conclude that fear—or the Halloween variant, which comes with that top layer of “all-in-good fun”—is a type of buddy.
In this spirit and spirit, I turn to two short works of cinema—core texts of my annual Halloween viewing roster—that don’t officially present themselves to us as terror efforts, but which rattle our cerebral cortexes all the more for the horror they evince. I use them to remind and ground myself in what is the locus of terror. I think that helps me live better, by remembering that nothing is guaranteed, and to go about one’s life controlling what one can control, so that when something arises that is beyond our control, we have a better chance to endure the threat it presents to us.
Ours is a safer, samier world than it used to be. Doesn’t it feel like everything comes with a label? Certainly a warning label, if there’s any chance we might be offended, which I think is a concept that is now becoming accidentally synonymous with “surprised,” which is shame, because it diminishes the collective capacity for wonder, or just what people will allow themselves to be open to. If you are of a certain age, think about the instructional films you were shown either in school or after the day’s classes were done on the TV at home, as you looked after yourself. The world was presented in a way that was anti-helicopter parent; that is, not in a safety space-free manner, and closer, I’d say, to how the world is. You’re apt to recall those “shorts” with what can be a nightmarish pang, but they did shape a part of your life, and I believe they played a part in fostering wisdom.
The nature film was a staple of this kind of experience. That’s because a nature film has a certain built-in cuddly premise to the neophyte. Expectations are set at a given level. The nature film, ironically, has a touch of presumed domesticity. After all, it’s not formal horror, but rather educational, yes? But that the nature film is not formal horror—and is certainly not labeled as such—I find that it can possess greater potency to horrify, and, thus, to provide the sort of life counsel/lessons of which I was speaking.
The most effective nature film/work of cinematic horror that I know is the nine-minute production from 1945 by the French nature filmmaker, Jean Painlevé, called The Vampire. Nature, as we know, can be brutal. Who cannot recall the voice of David Attenborough narrating some tense drama of one beast stalking another, and then the predator moving in—with the lightning strike—for the gory kill? The violence of said kill is akin to an explosion. The crack of the rifle in the air, but in bodily forms. Horror feels both more allowable and more verboten within the construct of the nature film. After all, the world works the way the world works. The horror, though, is usually on the explosive side. It’s not surgical, protracted, which is what makes this less-than-ten minutes long effort more ironic yet, because it’s also protracted in its fear, given that we’re accustomed to, say, the blink-of-an-eye bite of the cobra, the snap of the white shark’s teeth. Spontaneity over extension.
Immediately, by dint of its premise and the foreboding it generates, Painlevé’s film makes us ill at ease. A guinea pig is staring into the camera in all of its trusting opacity. Facing this guinea pig is a vampire bat. The scene is total calm. The guinea pig, being what it is, appears to want to play, as if here was some new buddy, and a somewhat furry one, too, which is perhaps reassuring if you are a guinea pig. One can’t imagine there’d be this same placidity were there a snake staring back at this humble creature.
A narrator informs us of what is happening as it happens. The bat is clinical, fastidious. It uses its mouth to numb an area near the nose of the rodent with a salivary agent, and then, as if the vampire doubled as a barber, hair is removed from the area for better access. The guinea pig apparently has no clue what is befalling it, which makes matters more chilling. We can’t intercede. We also don’t know how gory the procedure of the blood-draining will be. The film is in crisp black and white, but as anyone who has seen a work like Hitchcock’s Psycho is aware, blood can be more visually disturbing within this starker coloristic medium. The darker side of the spectrum is corrupted to a charcoal-ruddiness, with the liquid life force asserting itself as this sinister, flowing shade hovering between the black and white polarities, which now seem to represent sickness and health.